On Losing a Friend

My Friends are my estate. Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them.

-Emily Dickinson

Unknown-1I lost my oldest friend two weeks ago to Multiple Sclerosis, a friend I’ve known for 38 years, since I was twelve. It’s hard to face such a loss. There’s no protocol, no vocabulary to describe it. You don’t get credit for the death of a friend; it passes unremarked. I feel awkward describing myself as ‘bereaved,’ though I am exactly that. It’s such a hard thing to lose a friend who was loved exactly as deeply as family (but absent the drama and disappointment).

It’s the loss of my past and my future,  a reminder of my own mortality. It’s the loss of a certain sanguine vision of myself – her generous, unwavering, and almost certainly inaccurate faith that I was truly delightful, despite all evidence to the contrary. And, above all, it’s the loss of her, a person who was just simply better than everyone else: kinder, funnier, gentler, wiser.

I owe my life to my friend. She taught me acceptance and how to find love. She taught me how be a mother, how to age with humor, how to live with disappointment. She taught me how to die with gratitude. She was effervescently funny and loving, the most optimistic person I’ve ever known, indeed the most optimistic person anyone has every known.

She was the kind of person who brought smiles of joy to the faces of scowling strangers and tantruming toddlers. She made people weep with laughter and clutch at their sides, gasping for breath as she told a story. It’s a cliché that we extol the virtues of the departed, but she didn’t need any special death bonus. Everyone liked her. Correction: everyone loved her. She filled a room with light. She took away the darkness. I said in my eulogy that she took apologizing to epic heights; if uttering ‘thank yous’ were an Olympic sport, she would have medalled in numerous events. It was impossible to be unmoved by her happiness. She could wander a parched desert and find an oasis. She thought every empty glass was full.

As her illness progressively narrowed her options, she simply sought new goal posts, with equanimity and gratitude. When she became confined to a wheel chair, she laughingly observed that she’d never been a good dancer and now had an excuse to avoid it. When she entered a nursing home, she joked that most people only dream of sitting around all day watching television but she could now actually get away with it. Her world contracted but not her heart. She kept hope alive in the hearts and minds of those around her -  her family, her children, her friends, her colleagues, and neighbors and caretakers – even as she faced her own diminishing returns.

Oh, how I miss her. She taught me gratitude, for which I am, well… grateful. I’m damned appreciative to be alive on this little patch of Planet Earth, at this particular moment of space-time. A hundred years ago, I would have died twice before age 30: once, at 23, in a waterlogged village in Bangladesh. And if my uncontrollably prosaic diarrhea and vomiting hadn’t killed me off, I would have joined, at 28, the ranks of new mothers who left shell-shocked young husbands, dead from pre-eclampsia and post-partum hemorrhage. And who knows the other myriad near misses that would have picked me off before what’s incorrectly known as ‘my time?’ I know it’s ghoulish to think that way but it does give me perspective on the small problems in life to think that I’m on borrowed time, so to speak, compared to the experience of most people throughout human history. Compared to my friend who has died.

Let’s be honest: I’ve had all the good things in life in great abundance. When I catalogue that abundance in my mind – my children, my marriage, my education, my experience – it’s pretty clear I should be walking around on a cloud of near-euphoria instead of continually ferreting out picayune reasons to be upset. Next time I do that … as I’m reaching for the closet door, let’s say, and it becomes apparent that I can’t shove my pillowy thighs into 90 percent of my wardrobe (and am thus forced to wear the only pair of jeans that still fit: bright red and clown-like), I hope I’ll hear my friend’s voice, reminding me to stop complaining, reminding me to lighten up, to laugh over the hot flashes, the ingrate children, the husband who cuts his nails at the dinner table, and all the petty slights and inconsiderations that so often – TOO often – make my daily life less perfect than I know it really is.

Oh, how I miss my beautiful, happy, grateful friend.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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3 Responses to On Losing a Friend

  1. Reading about how her illness contracted her world really got to me. I remember during the period I had volunteered at a senior home, sure there were your optimistic residents who appreciated the effort in which the staff members there put into making a variation and a sense of fun into their otherwise still regulated schedule, there were always those who had the bad days and looked at me while we were in the elevator, before I bring them to another organized event – that they’ll be stuck here till they die.

    Touching post, thank you for sharing.

    Sarah

  2. Richard Hussar says:

    Oddly enough today I was thinking about friends now gone. About my Mother gone way to soon and of my first true love. Thought for sure we would spend our life’s together. It didn’t work out but I never stopped loving him. I traced him down awhile ago on the Internet and found that he had died. I can’t help mourning him and all our mutual friends are gone so I do it solo. Alvin and I have 35 years precious together and no regrets but your first love always remains in your heart. Strangely enough we ( my ex wife and i ) sent wedding gifts to each other and were married on the same day. We did what was expected back then. This book has been written many times.

  3. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I know those hallways far too well.

    To have a friend with such lightness and optimism is one of life’s truest gifts; They are rarely found & once found, greatly treasured. Once gone, they’re absence echos with sadness, fond memories, laughter and yes, *gratitude*.

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